Saturday, November 30, 2013

Maoist slave cult footnotes

Following my post this week on the Brixton Maoist cult, I have had some second thoughts about how helpful the word "slave" is in the case. "Modern-day slavery" has become one of the moral panics of the contemporary liberal imagination, a moral panic so apolitical the Tories buy into it. Clearly, in this case there is control, manipulation, domination, maybe also exploitation - but (as with the difference between "normal" sects and cults), the line crossed before we should be talking about "slavery" is rather blurry, and I'm not sure there are enough facts in the public domain to judge this case. I think Transpontine gets it exactly right here:
Unless and until this case comes to court and all the evidence is out there, it's probably best not to speculate too much about the details. It is pretty clear though that this would be a unique situation arising from very particular circumstances - and certainly no basis on which to generalise about slavery in modern Britain. Clearly there are disparate cases of extreme exploitation, abuse and servitude but maybe Frank Furedi has a point about the inadequacy of the term 'slavery' to describe them. 
Tempting too to draw general political conclusions about Marxist-Leninism as Bob from Brockley does. I have some sympathy with this approach, but again we probably can't deduce too much from this pathological case study. Once a political organisation is small enough to fit in one household we are really talking about small group interpersonal dynamics rather than political ideology, even if ideology can justify all kinds of behaviour that most people would find appalling.
But anyway, I just wanted to signal a few other internet posts worth reading on this topic.
Phil's "The Far Left and Revolutionary Identity Politics" is very much worth reading. Here's a taster, with my added emphases:
A. Balakrishnan, as with all little Lenins (or Mao Mini-Mes), has probably long-fantasised that like the dialectic itself, the WIMLMZT would become a scandal and an abomination to the bourgeoisie. The Toy Town "institute" have certainly become that, but rather than keeping the company of the revolutionary heroes, some might suggest our "comrade" can instead count Josef Fritzl and Ariel Castro among his fellow travellers. Of course, Balakrishnan and his partner are entitled to a bourgeois concept they are unlikely to recognise - the presumption of innocence. But once again, after a terrible year for the far left, cult-like practices among revolutionary socialists are back under the spotlight. They serve as a reminder of why old Karl turned his back on those who would describe themselves as 'Marxists'... 
Messianism is not the unique property of Maoists. Just as the far right is divided among would-be fuehrers who brook no opposition, so the far left is split between collectives of varying sizes, each uniquely offering the correct politics and the right leadership to sweep capitalism away - if only the working class would listen to them instead of their traditional (mis)leaders. If you subscribe to a group with grand pretensions of a glorious mission, one shouldn't be surprised if they act a bit strange. Or self-destruct spectacularly... 
In [1960s] Britain, the International Socialists (the SWP's forerunner) and the International Marxist Group (of Tariq Ali!) scooped up the new generation of activists for whom socialism and revolutionary politics wasn't rooted in "old-style" class consciousness, but a congruence of values and identity between the group and the new recruit. Such individuals had always been around radical and revolutionary causes. But what was different were the much larger numbers who were so motivated. 
Throughout the period the class compromise of the post-war settlement was dismantled, the cultural trends driven by capital and encouraged by neoliberal reworkings of the state and politics strengthened the new individualism. The labour movement base of the far left, which was never massive, contracted sharply and the recruits picked up were increasingly drawn toward revolutionary politics out of personal disenchantment. The class wasn't the same, but The Class as an identity marker became more important - whether one was "authentically" working class or not. And with increasing numbers entering revolutionary politics and imbibing positions and party branding as markers of personal identity, so new drivers of sectarian behaviour came into play - one wasn't necessarily asserting one's self against the crushing anonymity of capital, but against "betrayers" in the labour movement.... 
As the culture of individuality has shifted these last 10 years in an even more narcissistic direction, so the politics and activities of far left organisations have assumed more pathological forms. Accentuation of senses of self-importance is one, allowing some to think they're above morality and the law. The depravity and cultishness that sees an alleged rape survivor harassed by people who call themselves socialists is another. Into this mix you can add a determination to continue ploughing the same furrow, despite reality confounding perspectives time and again. Without the connection to the labour movement, indeed thanks to their growing alienation from it, membership replacement absolutely depends on picking up the atomised and the disenchanted. The more they lose their moorings, the more they are absorbed in the identity work the party is increasingly involved in. Analysis and policy is no more about changing the world. Revolutionary politics, which was always a tenuous proposition in Britain anyway, has given away fully to revolutionary identity politics.
I already recommended the comment thread at Coatesy's place, which has continued since then. The following links are worth a bit of time too. Historian Evan Smith's The Conversation blogpost  makes similar points to those I made: that the sect was not unlike a religious cult but that its behaviour is also not so distant from that of other left groups such as the WRP or RCP. He adds some interesting facts at his own blogPaul Flewers' BBC interview is very informative about Comrade Bala's cult, and its decision to go underground.

The Coatesy comment thread mentions the cult-like RCP, who of course also went underground but have re-surfaced with considerable influence in various front organisations, most notably Spiked. I hadn't read until now this amusing piece by Dave Renton (now an SWP dissident) on his brief tenure in thee RCP.

Transpontine's post, already mentioned, goes into some detail about the fascinating story of Maoism in South London. For the really dedicated Trot-anoraks, this pdf of an anthropology PhD dissertation on far left sects from 1978 is also fascinating, with a thumbnails of the IMG, WRP, SWP and others, as well as comrade Bala's Workers’ Institute of Marxism-Leninism-Mao Zedong Thought.

Last  but not least, Nick Cohen also covers some similar ground to me, but his argument is that those who blame this on Leninism need to take a long look at religious utopianism too, as the two mirror each other too closely for comfort - but finally that cultish behaviour is widespread in mainstream society too.

4 comments:

between the lines said...

Thanks for this round-up of comment Bob. Very useful.

I think of all the links that I looked at the Nick Cohen one was perhaps the closest to my analysis so far. We all construct "reality", both individually and collectively within whatever circles we engage with, as well as nationally and internationally there are also powerful consensus realities. Confirmation bias is very much de rigueur for most of us most of the time, it seems.

Robert's comment on AVPS also highlights just how painful the cognitive dissonance is when an individual's constructed reality diverges too strongly from other realities that impinge on them.

I'd argue that all societies are cults of belief. And within each society there are also a multitude of mini cults that are constantly vying to get their particular beliefs "go viral" like psychic plagues.

Any strong interest can give individuals space to develop their own cult and take control of others. Music for example - this Watkins man from Lostprophets. "If I own you then I also own your baby" he's alleged to have said to one of his groupies.

For all those control freaks out there, there's a handy film explaining "How to Start Your Own Cult":

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hVMDjfNjb0k

My feeling is that the more people understand about how all too easy it is to be manipulated, then the more we can develop good bullshit detectors to see through anything from advertising and PR to political propaganda to abusers of any other kind. Experiments in teaching children about philosophy are one good start.

Sadly I fear that'll never happen. There's simply too many people out there with an interest in exploiting the vulnerable and the gullible.

Roland Dodds said...

"My feeling is that the more people understand about how all too easy it is to be manipulated, then the more we can develop good bullshit detectors to see through anything from advertising and PR to political propaganda to abusers of any other kind."

Great point Between the Lines. When I think that I myself spent 3 months of my life in what was the front from a larger political cult (a NATLFED org), I see just how cults in general operate and can sucker in folks from a slew of backgrounds and outlooks. It is easy to shake our heads and laugh at true believers, spouting nonsense on street corners. But to recognize that many can be roped into a similar organization is not often appreciated.

The Loneliest Jukebox said...

Ah, that Dave Renton posting. Dated 4/8 March 2006, there was a bit of revision went on between 4 and 8 March as his memory seemed less than reliable first time around. Having told one version of his RCP story to Nick Cohen in the late 1990s, Renton - who had since had a falling out with Cohen - strayed from that script in 2006. When my blog, the Loneliest Jukebox, pointed out these inconsistencies, the edits went in.

Renton still could do with changing the bit about a Sheffield RCP screening of Gone with the Wind. "In Sheffield, the RCP's chief tactic was to show classic films to students" is a matter of interpretation, but Sheffield RCP definitely DID NOT screen Gone with the Wind. No-one has yet claimed the £200 prize money I'm offering to anyone who can provide evidence that this event took place.

Richard Armbach said...

Let me get this straight we are agonising over whether Gone With The Wind was shown in Sheffield ? Do you folks realise how many dunams of Palestinian land has been stolen while you have been agonising over this ?